Exclusive: 350,000 days lost to stress in public sector

THE pressured state of the region's public sector workforce has been revealed in new figures showing that council, police and health staff took more than 350,000 days off work last year because of stress-related conditions.

Figures released under the Freedom of Information Act by almost 50 local councils, police forces and NHS trusts from across the region show that stress-related absence is costing local taxpayers tens of millions of pounds in lost man-hours, as the threat of looming spending cuts increases the pressure on public sector workers.

More than a quarter of the public organisations that responded to the Yorkshire Post questions said stress-related illness was responsible for at least 20 per cent of all staff absences during 2009-10.

At Sheffield City Council, the region's second-largest local authority, stress was the cause of 26.8 per cent of staff absences. At North Lincolnshire Primary Care Trust, the figure was 27.2 per cent.

Some NHS organisations, including hospital trusts in Hull and East Yorkshire, North Lincolnshire and Goole, and South Tees, said the problem cost them more than 1m in lost hours last year.

The public policy adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, Ben Wilmott, warned that high levels of stress were likely to be a signal of deep-seated problems at large organisations.

He said: "If you've got a high proportion of stress-related absence within an organisation, it should be a flashing red light on the dashboard. At board level you should be extremely worried about it.

"You've obviously got large numbers of people off sick, but it also means there are real question-marks over management. The key is to really get to the cause of the problem."

Many public bodies have been preparing for massive cuts over the past 12 months as it became clear spending would have to be slashed following the economic crash. Hundreds of thousands of public sector jobs are expected to be lost.

Mr Wilmott said such unrest – coupled with the high-pressured nature of many public sector jobs – might be a key reason behind the high rates of stress.

He said: "Research suggests that stress-related absence is typically higher in the public sector, where there is a higher proportion of challenging, public-facing roles.

"But the other thing that comes up strongly is this issue of organisational change.

"When organisations go through periods of change and there are redundancies, that's something that makes people feel under increased pressure."

Our research shows significant discrepancies in the proportion of stress-related absence at comparable public bodies, the average being around 14 per cent.

At North Yorkshire Police, 21.5 per cent of all absences last year were due to stress. In neighbouring South Yorkshire, however, the figure was just 7.3 per cent.

Chief Supt Iain Spittal, of North Yorkshire Police, said a "significant amount" of employee absence was not work-related.

But he added: "As we go forward into the new year, we are very conscious of the fact many of our staff will be nervous about what the future holds for them in terms of their employment.

"We will continue to work sensitively with them and provide a wide range of support mechanisms as we downsize."

Bridget Strong, chief executive of the Sheffield branch of mental health charity Mind, said the issue is likely to be even more serious than official figures suggest.

She said: "Any figures are likely to underestimate the problem.

"A lot of people will avoid acknowledging that the reason they are off work is because of stress – there's still a lot of stigma around mental health issues. People might feel a lot more comfortable saying they've got back pain or migraine or something.

"And if it goes on your work record that you've had long period off with stress, future employers can take a dim view of that due to the same lack of understanding."

The director of human resources at Sheffield City Council, Julie Toner, believes her authority's high rate of stress-related absence may partially be due to staff feeling able to report their stress levels.

She said: "We encourage our colleagues to report sickness absence honestly.

"Nationally there is still some stigma around mental health conditions, including stress. At our council we want colleagues to be able to talk about stress openly, which is an important step in working together on the causes of stress and finding solutions."

REGION'S TOP 10 PRESSURE POINTS

The region's 10 most stressed-out public bodies (figure shows percentage of sickness absence due to stress)

1 North Lincs PCT 27.2

2 Sheffield City Council 26.7

3 Calderdale Council 22.4

4 Doncaster Council 22.2

5 Bradford & Airedale PCT 22.2

6 North Yorkshire Council 21.7

7 Hull PCT 21.7;

8 North Yorkshire Police 21.5

9 Rotherham Council 21.4

10 Scarborough and NE Yorks Trust 20.8.